The Tauber Institute for the Study of European Jewry

The Soviet Jewish Bookshelf: Jewish Culture and Identity Between the Lines

Marat Grinberg

Book cover of "Don Issac Abravanel: An Intellectual Biography"An original investigation into the reading strategies and uses of books by Jews in the Soviet era.  

In an environment where Judaism had been all but destroyed, and a public Jewish presence routinely delegitimized, reading provided many Soviet Jews with an entry to communal memory and identity. The bookshelf was both a depository of selective Jewish knowledge and often the only conspicuously Jewish presence in their homes. The typical Soviet Jewish bookshelf consisted of a few translated works from Hebrew and numerous translations from Yiddish and German as well as Russian books with both noticeable and subterranean Jewish content. Such volumes, officially published, and not intended solely for a Jewish audience, afforded an opportunity for Soviet Jews to indulge insubordinate feelings in a largely safe manner. Author Marat Grinberg is interested in pinpointing and decoding the complex reading strategies and the specifically Jewish uses to which the books on the Soviet Jewish bookshelf were put. He reveals that not only Jews read them, but Jews read them in a specific way.

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"Soviet Jews were the People of the Book. Denied all access to Scripture, they turned their bookshelves into major memory sites, fashioning a personal and collective identity out of historical fiction, science fiction, poetry, children’s verse, memoirs, travelogues, translations from Yiddish and modern Hebrew, and even anti-Zionist propaganda. Here is the untold story of their ongoing, multigenerational struggle for self-determination as told by a native son with great clarity, thoroughness, and empathy. Were this not enough, Marat Grinberg has also redefined Jewish literature as that which a living polity has rescued through conscious acts of creative rereading." — David G. Roskies, Sol & Evelyn Henkind Emeritus Professor of Yiddish Literature and Culture, The Jewish Theological Seminary

"What made Soviet Jews Jewish? Superbly researched and lucidly argued, The Soviet Jewish Bookshelf makes a convincing case for the formation of a unique Soviet Jewish identity through subversive and generative reading practices. The eponymous bookshelf, an important material and intellectual feature of the Soviet Jewish home, was capacious enough to hold a variety of texts, from Leon Feuchtwanger’s sweeping historical novels, to Alexandra Burshtein’s and Lev Kassil’s coming-of-age tales, and the Strugatsky brothers’ science fiction. Soviet Jews mined the contents of the shelf for references to Jewishness—overt and oblique, empowering and disparaging—to bolster a sense of selfhood and peoplehood. Over and above making a significant scholarly contribution, Grinberg’s book bears witness to a community’s heroic struggle to survive against impossible odds." — Helena I. Gurfinkel, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville

"Marat Grinberg’s original and engaging study locates the core of Russian-Jewish identity not in a particular language or religious faith, but in a canon of treasured books, both Jewish and non-Jewish, and a practice of reading ‘between the lines.’ Along the way, he offers provocative new interpretations of Soviet and non-Soviet classics alike." — Adrian Wanner, Pennsylvania State University

About the Author

Marat Grinberg came to Reed College in 2006 and is professor of Russian and Humanities. He received his BAs in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and in Modern Jewish Studies from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 1999, and his Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of Chicago in 2006. He is a specialist in 20th century Russian literature and culture, with an emphasis on Soviet poetry, modern Jewish literature, culture, and politics, and post-war European and American cinema. At Reed he teaches courses in Russian poetry and 19th century novel, Russian and Jewish literature of destruction, Jewish modernisms, Soviet science fiction, and Introduction to Comparative Literature. He is the author of I am to be Read not from Left to Right, but in Jewish: from Right to Left: The Poetics of Boris Slutsky (Academic Studies Press 2011/ paperback 2013) and Commissar (Intellect 2016). He is also co-editor of Woody on Rye: Jewishness in the Films and Plays of Woody Allen (Brandeis University Press 2013). He has published extensively in both academic and journalistic venues on Russian and Jewish literature, culture, and cinema.